This little book by prolific Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nash (also Nashe, c. 1567–c. 1601) is a sceptical account of dreams and apparitions. Nash dismisses such ‘terrors of the night’ as being the product of superstition, melancholy or imagination. He writes: ‘A dreame is nothing els but a bubling scum or froath of the fancie, which the day hath left undigested; or an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations’ (sig. C3v).
Nash disregards attempts to interpret the meaning of dreams as being inconsistent and lacking in, or even reversing, sense: ‘What sense is there that the yoalke of an egge should signifie gold… that everything must bee interpreted backward as Witches say their Pater-noster, good being the character of bad, and bad of good’ (sig. D3v). He also debunks all sorts of spirits and sprites including ‘Robbin-good-fellowes, Elfes, Fairies, Hobgoblins’ (sig. B2v). However, he does reserve some small amount of faith for visions (which he distinguishes from dreams) sent from heaven, such as those of Caesar, Darius and Alexander.
In the Elizabethan period (as in the medieval and classical traditions of dream theory) there were anxieties about the nature and interpretation of dreams. Increasingly, people questioned the reliability of discerning meaning from dreams and indeed whether dreams could be prophetic at all. Questions were also asked about whether dreams were supernatural or whether they originated in the dreamer? If the former, were they angelical or demonical? And if the latter, did they originate in the soul, the mind or the body?
Nash and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Parallels can be drawn between the rationalist opinions of Theseus in Act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and those Nash expresses in Terrors of the Night. Both dismiss dreams as being a result of the dreamer’s imagination. Theseus’s description of ‘the poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ (5.1.12) has a parallel in Nash’s image of the incessant ‘wheeling and rolling on of our braines’ (sig. G1v). Theseus’s statement on the relation of imagination and sense perception at night, ‘Or in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.21–22), also chimes with Nash: ‘so our dreams … borrow of anie noyse we heare in the night. … If in the dead of the night there be anie rumbling, knocking, or disturbaunce neere us, wee straight dreame of warres, or of thunder.’ (sig. C4v)
The introduction of a sceptical, rationalist view to a fantastical play where the audience has witnessed the ‘truth’ of the strange happenings of the wood raises questions about the interpretation of sense perceptions, the ability to make meaning and the relationship of strangeness and truth.